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Issue 56 - West Coast Wanderings

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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West Coast Wanderings

John Hannavy recreates a 1772 journey from the Solway to the Islands

Thomas Pennant, who wrote two of the most comprehensive early accounts of traveling in Scotland, was not a Scotsman. He was born in Wales, the son of a relatively wealthy landowner. His first account of his Scottish travels was published in 1769, and was followed five years later by a two-volume account of his second and much longer and more extensive tour which he had undertaken in 1772.
Travel writing in those days was a relatively unsophisticated art, so Pennant’s account is not in the romantic vein we expect of guides to Scotland today, but it does offer a unique and sometimes insightful view of the country. His writing style is very much in the vein of the tourist pocket guides which would start to appear in the middle of the 19th century, guiding his readers along the way, and telling them what to expect. He described what he saw in vivid word pictures as he went.
Of course travel was not easy, and always slow, but Pennant’s perseverance rarely waned, nor did his enthusiasm for the scenery and people he encountered.
Whereas Daniel Defoe was concerned with the great houses, the great men, and the great manufactures of Scotland, Pennant was fascinated by Scotland’s landscape and the history which has been played out on that landscape.
The 1772 journey was a matter of ‘unfinished business’. “This journey” he wrote in his Advertisement – the Introduction in today’s parlance – “was undertaken in the summer of 1772, in order to render more complete, my preceding tour; and to allay that species of restlessness that infects many minds, on leaving any attempt unfinished. Conscious of my deficiency in several respects, I prevailed upon two gentlemen to favour me with their company, and to supply by their knowledge what I found wanting in myself.”
The two gentlemen in question were the Reverend Mr. John Lightfoot of Uxbridge, a botanist and lecturer, and the Reverend Mr. John Stuart, the minister at Killin. Pennant acknowledged that they brought with them “all the comforts that arise from the society of agreeable and worthy companions.”
The journey started well south of the border, and the book opened with a description of the group’s travels through Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland, before crossing the border into Dumfriesshire.
The curiosity of Pennant’s writing style is that he writes simply as if giving his readers directions. Following his route, if we had the time to do it completely, would be simple. Entering Liddesdale, he wrote “Keep by the riverside for three miles farther to Pentonlins, where is a most wild but picturesque scene of the river, rapidly flowing along rude rocks, bounded by cliffs, clothed on each side by trees.”
At Caerlaverock, as might be expected, he was fascinated by the castle – using the old style of ‘isle of Caerlaveroc’ to describe its location. “it is worth observing,” he recalled of its ruinous state, “that it was taken by force of engines, and the English… …used much the same methods of attack as the Greeks and Romans did.” He would be fascinated to visit the ruins today, where a replica of just one such siege engine has been erected.
His next stop was what he described as ‘Newby Abbey’, which we know as Sweetheart Abbey or New Abbey, but he offered his readers no description. At Lincluden a few miles further on, he did describe the remains of the Benedictine nunnery in detail, as well as offering the much reported suggestion that the nuns had been expelled “on account of the impurity of their lives.”
Having enjoyed the rich and fertile landscape of Dumfries and Galloway, the views which greeted him in the lead-rich hills around Wanlockhead and Leadhills left him oddly cold. “Nothing”, he wrote, “can equal the barren and gloomy appearance of the country round: neither tree nor shrub, nor verdure, nor picturesque rock, appear to amuse the eye: the spectator must plunge into the bowels of these mountains for entertainment; or please himself with the idea of the good that is done by the well-bestowed treasures drawn from these inexhaustible mines, that are still rich, baffling the efforts of two centuries.”
Further inland, and into what he described as ‘Lanerkshire’, near Crawfordjohn, Pennant came across the ruins of Douglas Castle – of which only a circular tower still stands – and reminded his readers that “near the castle are several very ancient ash trees, whose branches groaned under the weight of executions when the family knew no law but its will.” Thus is the turbulence of Scotland’s history interwoven with his travelogue.
He crossed the Clyde at Bothwell – visiting both the ancient church and the castle – and eventually arrived in Glasgow, where, amongst other things, summary executions once again exercised his mind. This time it was witchcraft, and the execution of five people on June 10th 1697.
Then to Paisley, northwards to Loch Lomond, and on to Greenock, where he boarded the 90 ton cutter Lady Frederic Campbell for a sail on the Clyde past Kilmun, and on to Bute, Arran and Gigha. The plan was then to move on to Islay. On Bute, he marveled at the mild climate, and lest we think our recent cold winters were unusual, he tells his readers “Snow is scarcely ever known to lie here, and even that of last winter, so remarkable for its depth and duration in other places, was in this island barely two inches deep.”
Pennant is clearly writing about his first-hand experiences, as well as offering Scotland an early guidebook. It is just a pity so few were able to follow in his footsteps. “Attempt to steer for the island of Islay, but in vain. Am entertained with the variety and greatness of the views that abound the channel, the great Sound of Jura; to the east the mountains of Arran overtop the far-extending shores of Cantyre; to the west lies Jura, mountainous and rugged; four hills naked and distinct, aspire above the rest, two of them known to the seamen by the name of ‘the Paps’, useful navigation.”
Visiting Jura would await another day, but Pennant was about to embark upon his tour of the Hebrides. That, as they say, is another story.